The path to finding a breakthrough in competitive sport can be long and arduous, a fact to which coach Rocco Meiring and his charge Tatjana Schoenmaker can both attest.
The duo have worked together for close to five years and are only now reaping the benefits.
Schoenmaker made history at the recent Gold Coast Commonwealth Games where she became the first able-bodied South African woman to win a gold medal in the pool at the quadrennial showpiece since Joan Harrison at the 1954 Vancouver Games.
She won the 100/200m breaststroke double in Australia, launching herself into the highest echelons of the world rankings.
Meiring identified Schoenmaker’s talents when she was just 10 years old, and it later took some convincing to draw the star swimmer to the TuksSport High School in Pretoria.
While she was reluctant to leave her coach at the time, Adrian Dorey contacted Meiring, believing Schoenmaker could fulfil her potential in Pretoria.
Schoenmaker went on to make a major breakthrough at last year’s World Student Games in Taipei where she earned the 200m breaststroke silver medal in a personal best of 2:24.61.
The success she achieved over the last two years may never have happened, however, as the young swimming star found herself at a crossroad in her career in 2016.
Schoenmaker was left dejected after missing the Rio 2016 Olympic Games qualifying times by a fraction of a second (0.01) in the 200m breaststroke final at the national trials in Durban.
She made a last gasp attempt to qualify during the Mare Nostrum series in Europe but returned to South Africa injured.
To compound her problems, Schoenmaker’s studies had suffered due to her Olympic pursuit, which resulted in the swimmer contemplating retirement from the sport.
“I told her to recover from her injury and see whether she could get to love the sport again,” Meiring said.
“It took her three months to recover and she told me she would get back into the water.”
It took some negotiating from Meiring and national swimming coach Graham Hill to convince Schoenmaker to give her career a chance.
Meiring revealed Schoenmaker had injured her groin before the Commonwealth Games trials in December and they had been locked in a race against time.
Schoenmaker had to take three weeks off from swimming which shortened their preparation time for the Games.
The 20-year-old athlete nevertheless went on to make the cut, and ultimately set the pool alight at the Gold Coast Games by breaking Suzaan van Biljon’s African 200m breaststroke record by more than a second when she posted a time of 2:22.02.
Highlighting her character, Schoenmaker then raced the 100m breaststroke despite her groin injury flaring up.
“I said to her ‘Tatjana, we’ve achieved what we wanted to and if you are going to injure your groin we should just scratch’,” Meiring said.
“When she got into the warm-up pool she told me she felt pain and for the first time ever she asked me for a pain pill.”
Schoenmaker ultimately pulled through, smashing it in the 100m breaststroke final and chopping 0.1 off South African icon Penny Heyns’ previous national and continental record to claim double gold.
* Meiring will host the Speedo SwimCoach Conference at the TuksSport High-Performance Centre in Pretoria over the weekend.
The Games will cover the event, unpacking some of the information that will be shared by some of the world-class speakers.